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While bedridden as a child, director John Huston became a student of Rudyard Kipling's writing. In a l976 article for Film Encyclopedia, Huston remarked, "I read so much Kipling, it's in my unconscious. You start a verse I'll finish it. Kipling writes about a world gone, a geography gone. It's the world of adventure, high honor, mystery". Kipling's romantic worldview may well have informed Huston's adult life, with his experiences as a Mexican cavalry officer, big-game hunter, boxer, painter and even opera singer. There could be no more perfect director, then, to helm the larger-than-life story of The Man Who Would Be King (1975).
Set in colonial India in the l800s, the film follows the exploits of two rogue British Army sergeants, Danny Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine). During a skirmish, Dravot is shot in the chest with an arrow; rather than entering his flesh, it lodges in his Masonic pendant. To the natives' astonishment, the soldier draws it out without a trace of blood or injury, leading them to believe him a god. With this twist of fate, the two take advantage of the situation and the luxuries bestowed on them, until the fateful day when their sham is discovered and the natives turn on them. Kipling's story is brought to life in grand style by Connery, Caine and Huston, but like Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Ahab in Moby Dick (1956), Kipling's characters pay dearly for their avarice. Though the director never leans toward blunt social commentary, Kipling's allegory of the waning days of the British Empire reads clearly enough in the film.
Huston had envisioned a screen version of The Man Who Would Be King as far back as the l950s, at various times considering Bogart, Gable, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, and (lastly) Paul Newman and Robert Redford for the lead roles. At Newman's urging, the director hooked Connery and Caine, and the result was a rare screen chemistry that drives the narrative wonderfully. Christopher Plummer holds down the role of Kipling himself in a performance that makes it difficult to imagine anyone different playing the role. In Lawrence Grobel's The Hustons, Caine remarked that The Man Who Would Be King was "a classic of its kind" and "the only film I've done that will last after I've gone". In regards to Huston's deft direction, Caine noted, "Most directors today don't know what they want - so they shoot everything they can think of. They use the camera like a machine gun. John used itlike a sniper". The film is a grand-scale, "don't-make-'em-like-that-anymore" adventure that plays like Kipling himself would likely have imagined it.
Screenplay:Gladys Hill, John Huston, Rudyard Kipling (story)
Art Direction:Tony Inglis
Principle Cast:Sean Connery (Daniel Dravot), Michael Caine (Peachy Carnehan), Christopher Plummer (Rudyard Kipling), Saeed Jaffrey (Billy Fish), Doghmi Larbi (Ootah), Jack May (District Commissioner), Karroom Bouih (Kafu-Selim), Mohammad Shamsi (Babu)
by Jerry Renshaw